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Ladies Literary audience

Members of the audience listen avidly to Mary Swander.

INDEPENDENCE – After attending the Independence Ladies Literary Club meeting at the library on Thursday afternoon, the words of Harvey Mackay, a syndicated columnist whose career and inspirational advice is featured in more than 100 newspapers, came to this reporter’s mind: “Find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

While covering the event was work-related, it was truly a joy to listen to Mary Swander, Iowa’s third – and former – poet laureate of Iowa, talk about her early years, her Amish neighbors in Kalona, and her life as an author, a dramatist, a performer, a speaker, and a teacher.

Mary Swander is the artistic director of Swander Woman Productions and the executive director of AgArts, a non-profit designed to imagine and promote healthy food systems through the arts. Her latest book is a collection of essays called “The Sunny Side” from Route 3 Press. She read excerpts from this publication to the 25 or so people in attendance on Thursday.

Swander’s work focuses on the history of storytelling, “which knits our culture together,” she said. Her traveling theatre troupe, comprised of eight actors, tours the U.S., presenting stories and plays.

A native of Manning, Iowa, Swander and her family relocated to Davenport when she was young. A teacher who thought Swander needed to engage more in the classroom was a catalyst for the family signing her up for a local children’s theater. That experience sparked Swander’s career as a storyteller and performer.

For 30 years or so, Swander has lived, off and on, in an old schoolhouse she purchased from the Amish in Kalona. Her presentation focused on her interactions with the Amish, the Amish funerals and weddings she’s attended, and how she translates English (non-Amish) life for the Amish.

One of the neighborly acts Swander occasionally performs for her Amish neighbors is driving them to doctor’s appointments in Iowa City. On one such trip, one of them asked her about the person running on the sidewalk, parallel to Swander’s vehicle.

“What is the person in the little shorts doing? Is that exercise?”

“Yes,” Swander replied, a twinkle in her eye, “and running away from their job.”

Swander’s reading and presentation were interactive. While playing her harmonica, she cued the audience when to sing the chorus of “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a song made famous by The Carter Family, and part of her collection of essays, “The Sunny Side.”

Swander earned an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. She is a professor of English and a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences Emerita at Iowa State University.

Swander’s appearance in Independence was funded by Humanities Iowa. To learn more about Mary Swander or to purchase her work, go to